Spontaneous (ARC) by Aaron Starmer
Mara was in pre-calc class with the rest of her fellow seniors at Covington High when Katelyn Ogden blew up. The fact that she was Turkish didn’t help. And even though they didn’t find a bomb or any explosives or anything (she had just spontaneously combusted), people pointed fingers. The senior class was scarred for life, and so began a time full of soft nothings and therapy sessions- that is when an Asian-American student blew up during one of those very counseling sessions. That was when people slowed down and thought, “alright, this is weird.” The senior class is at risk: kids are blowing up left and right. There is no explanation. Is it a government conspiracy, is it an experiment, is it some sort of curse? Does it even matter what it is? Mara’s trying to live her life among the humdrum of spontaneous explosions; she’s just trying to love her new boyfriend and keep her shit together long enough to graduate and do something with her life. But will she survive?
Back in July, I read a short teaser of this book on Netgalley, and it became one of my most anticipated releases of the year. The teaser did such a fantastic job of establishing the voice of the novel; snarky, morbid, strong and a tad bit offensive- basically everything I can want from a narrator. When I traded a copy of one of my books for an ARC of Spontaneous, I couldn’t wait to dive back into the strange mind of this narrator who managed to retain her morbid sense of humor when people she knew were literally exploding. And while parts of this book definitely gave me that initial spark that drew me to the teaser, I have to say that the beginning was the strongest part of the novel.
By far the greatest quality of Spontaneous is the voice of the narrator, and perhaps even the narrator herself. Starmer wields the sharp intelligence of Mara’s character so skillfully; her voice is never overbearing. Despite her somewhat offensive sense of humor, she is so genuine in everything she does that it becomes endearing. She’s a bad-ass young woman who is headstrong, who is feisty and sarcastic and so full of sass, but she’s also an incredibly reclusive young woman. Who’s afraid to open up, who keeps her feelings buried deep within herself, often disguising her vulnerabilities with a sharp quip here, a jab there. Honestly, I kept reading the book for her- I was so invested and so in love with Mara’s person that I did not care that I wasn’t fully enjoying the book.
On the topic of characters, the side characters were a bit of a let-down. Which is a shame because I know from the protagonist’s depth that Starmer can create brilliant characters, but I felt that he didn’t do the side/peripheral characters justice. However, despite them not feeling fully fleshed-out, their relationships with Mara were so wonderfully tangible. Mara’s newly-realized romance with Dylan was a little insta-lovey, perhaps, but their feelings for each other felt so genuine. Not to mention that this book has one of the strongest, greatest female-friendship duos I have ever read, EVER. Tess didn’t particularly feel like someone I knew, but she felt like someone I loved because of how much Mara loved her. The family dynamics, too, felt realistic – even though they weren’t developed much. Mara’s parents were mostly in the background, but they clearly played a role in her life. Am I making sense? I don’t think I am…
But despite all this, the plot fizzled out after the first 50-60 pages. It went from a hilarious rollercoaster full of laugh-out-loud moments of teenage explosion to a somewhat slow read about romance, where the main premise of the novel was put to the backseat- when it was obviously the selling-point of the entire book. It went from an intelligent and subtle political and social satire – exploring homophobia, prejudice and xenophobia- to just another contemporary. I enjoyed reading Mara’s developments, her struggle with both external and internal factors, but I feel like (and I know this sounds silly) I picked this book up for something else, something I didn’t get after the beginning. Which is a shame, because I genuinely think this book could have been something that everyone would talk about.
Overall, I definitely think this book is still worth reading- particularly if you enjoy the work of Andrew Smith (who wrote Winger) or John Green. Both those authors do a brilliant job of writing narrative voice. I definitely think that if you enjoy their work, this one will appeal to you.
Finally, I’d like to talk a little about diversity. We’ve seen many conversations take place over the course of the past few weeks about the importance of diversity, the importance of seeing yourself in a novel. I’d just like to point out that while Spontaneous isn’t a “diverse” book, per se, it does something unique- something that I really appreciated. The main characters are all white- at least, their races have not been specified, which pretty much means they are canonically white. However, the peripheral cast of characters is so diverse! One of the aims of diversifying reading, in my opinion, is to make the majority realize that the world is not white, cishet, straight and able-bodied. The world is full of people who do not fit those molds and Starmer makes sure that his book reflects the world the way it is.
While they do not play prominent roles, we have several black characters, as well as people who are disabled, who are gay, who are Muslim or East Asian or South Asian or Hispanic, none of whom pander to stereotypes or tired clichés. I mean, the openly gay character was a football player- and I really appreciated that. Even just making sure that the Covington senior class was so diverse makes an obvious statement: your story may revolve around white characters, okay, but you can do that without ignoring how diverse this world really is. Again, I wouldn’t characterize this book as a “diverse” read- it’s just something I thought I might point out.